Revisiting Buddhism for Developing Education in Thailand

Published: 2021-09-14 21:55:09
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Education in Thailand today is on the way to enabling Thai students to keep up with globalisation while concurrently maintaining their Thainess. Thailand education development has principally applied educational theories and ideologies from western world. Nevertheless, literature says the development is still faced with difficulties. This paper alternatively presents relativist perspectives on using Buddhist scriptures to develop and remedy Thai education, namely Kalama Sutta for developing teaching and learning, Brahma-vihara for developing teachers, and iddhipada for developing students. The application of Buddhism in education is expected to equip Thais not only knowledge but also moral development. One is to sustain physical life, and the other spiritual happiness. Both should thereby make Thailand education a true education.
Education in Thailand has undergone several changes from the past to the present. Traditionally originated in temples, Thai education has an intimate relationship with Buddhism that is the Thai national religion. However, since 1932 Thai modernised education has embraced western educational systems in an attempt to mark the country as being civilised according to western-centric criteria. The recent education act in operation is Thailand National Education Act 1999 which is considered a significant reform of Thai educational system, shifting from Thai traditional teacher-centred approach to student-centred approach and emphasising development of thinking and learning autonomy in Thai students. The major aim of the Act is to enable Thai students to adjust themselves to the world’s trends while preserving good Thai culture. However, although carefully planned, its unsuccessful implementation has been reported. Thai authorities as well as domestic and international scholars attempt to identify the gap between theory and practice and correspondingly fill it.Until now, the gap appears to remain, and more challenges arise. Examples of the said challenges are the influx of information and technology, more complicated lifestyles, and accumulated problems (political, social, economic, and environmental) passed on by last generations. These bring human physical and mental illnesses. Therefore, Thai education of today and thereafter should be geared not only to tackling globalisation but also to coping with the challenges. Given that effectiveness of Thai education is still questioned, to rectify it may begin with examining what expected outcomes of education are. Education should provide people with strategies to live their lives. And then what is life? Life is composed of two major components: physical and mental. The failure of education may be attributed to the failure to fulfil the two. As a Thai teacher and a Buddhist, I see the merits of Buddhist scriptures that can hopefully satisfy both life components.
Why Buddhism?
Buddhism is a national religion of Thailand practised by over 90 per cent of Thais. Being “the core of Thai national identity”, it influences all units in the Thai society, including an educational unit. Although met with intervenes, Thai Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism) has never divorced Thai education. As a religion, Buddhism applied in development may appear dogmatic, utopian or retrogressive to some. However, the Buddha asserts that Buddhist teachings are timeless and applicable to all matters of all forms. The timelessness can be justified by it being scientifically based. Albert Einstein who is one of the most well-known scientists in the world contends that “Buddhism has a high degree of cosmic religious feeling, and this cosmic religious feeling is the origin or seed of scientific research”. Moreover, Payutto claims that Buddhism highlights criticality and self-experiment which are organic features of all kinds of science. As a consequence of this, Payutto maintains, the religion prioritises wisdom over faith. And the faith attained should be rational as people holding it verify it themselves.
The resemblances between Buddhist concepts and the so-called modern learning are also indicative of the timelessness. The Buddha accomplished the utmost spiritual enlightenment through reflecting on the truths himself. His learning attributes then appears to comprise reflection and self-refuge: the former is what today’s education calls critical thinking and the latter learning autonomy. However, he did not reject the teaching from teachers. He himself learned from teachers before leaving them to further his self-learning. The Buddha also advocates Kalyanamittata or “association with good friends” stressing that their qualities can have influences on us. His way of learning through interactions with others, reflection, and selective internalisation of the learned obviously reflect the sociocultural theory proposed by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) that has been largely applied in the realm of education until today. In addition to this, the Buddha guiding his disciples to take charge of their learning is demonstrative of the current trend in education: learning by doing or learner-centredness. He did not teach all humans with the same doctrines but selectively chose certain doctrines he deemed suitable for each individual’s individuality. His concern of the individuality is in accordance with the concept of “individual differences” emphasised in mainstream education nowadays.
Implementing Buddhist scriptures in development of Thai education
While there appear several Buddhist scriptures constructively applicable to development of education, this paper selects three of them to develop three major Thai educational, namely Kalama Sutta for developing teaching and learning, Brahma-vihara for developing teachers, and iddhipada for developing students.
Teaching and learning
The ability to think, specifically critically, becomes the essential foundation for education in countries worldwide. Thailand, as elsewhere, prioritises critical thinking in educational curriculums. This thinking was made a major educational goal in the Thailand Education Act 1999. Its promotion is not because the country is conditioned to accept the myth that following other countries is a virtue, but because of a true significance of the thinking itself, particularly in most Thai classroom settings that apply teacher-centredness and hence rote-learning instead of thinking.
I deem Kalama Sutta as being capable of cultivating critical thinking in Thailand education. Critical thinking literature now directs more attention to this scripture. In his time, the Buddha delivered it to Kalama people who asked him which religion they should practise since many religions arose and each declared their religion was the best. He responded:
“Do not believe simply because you have heard it. Do not believe simply because you have learned it. Do not believe simply because you have practiced it from ancient times. Do not believe simply because it is rumored. Do not believe simply because it is in the scriptures. Do not believe simply on logic. Do not believe simply through guesswork. Do not believe simply through reasoning. Do not believe simply because it conforms to your theory. Do not believe simply because it seems credible. Do not believe simply out of faith in your teacher.”
The doctrines, the Buddha maintained, were not to go unchallenged. If ones proved them “evil and unjustified, that they are condemned by the wise and that when they are accepted and lived by, they conduce to ill and sorrow, then you should reject them”. This again indicates that Buddhism is not purely dogmatic, but scientifically testable. The Buddha messages imply three educational virtues: critical thinking, self-reliance, and morality.
Kalama Sutta evidently develops cognitions (reflection, reasoning, judgment) and dispositions (inquisitiveness, open-mindedness, prudence) essential for critical thinking. Aside from this, it also empowers humans to be a selector, not a conformer. Such empowerment makes the sutta in vogue: being a tool helping people of today tackle advanced technology and media, particularly social media by reminding themselves of “Do not believe simply because you have heard it”, “Do not believe simply because it is rumored”, “Do not believe simply because it seems credible”. Moreover, it provides a path to deal with human egocentricity: “Do not believe simply because you have learned it”, “Do not believe simply because you have practiced it from ancient times”, and “Do not believe simply because it conforms to your theory”. The “Do not believe simply because it is in the scriptures.” is also fashionable of this time when increasingly “human beings resort to exploitation and violence in the name of religion”.
Thai teachers are expected to be well-qualified with knowledge and ethics. Thai teachers’ expected ethics are elaborated in Regulation of the Teachers Council of Thailand on Professional Standards and Ethics 2005. Remarkably, ethical issues in Thailand appear overlapped with morality. This can perhaps be justified by the intimate relationship between Thailand and Buddhism. It should be noted that although teachers’ knowledge and morality are considered equally important, the latter seems prioritised among Thais in general. With the decent place of morality in Thailand education, I suggest the use of Brahma-vihara that includes metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity) to strengthen Thai teachers’ ethics or morality.
Brahma is “the divine but transient ruler of the higher heavens in the traditional Buddhist picture of the universe”. Thera expounds that humans possessing Brahma-vihara are believed to experience a true peace of mind and be reborn in Brahma realms after death. Although the realms are not the utmost spiritual happiness according to Buddhism, it is a station along the way to it. In a worldly sphere, Brahma-vihara is deemed conducive to the formation of happiness for lay persons. In an educational sphere, teachers who can saturate themselves with it are deemed successful in their profession, especially in a spiritual angle. This sublime love-based pedagogy is not new. Eppert (2010) and Hinsdale (2012) similarly emphasize it.
In Thai culture, teachers are revered as students’ second parents without blood relation but spiritual bond. Therefore, Thai teachers are expected to have metta (loving kindness) to their students who are just as their children. Their metta expressed through kind and gentle actions, speeches, and thoughts should be given to all students impartially irrespective of the students’ differences: rich or poor, high-achieving or low- achieving, and well-behaved or disruptive. Teachers with metta have sincere wishes for students’ wellbeing which in turn should result in their dedication in giving knowledge, realising that they, to some extent, can determine students’ failure or prosperity. Metta as generating sincere wishes to see others’ happiness and success benefits not merely takers but also givers. Payutto asserts that happiness arise right away just when we start thinking of giving it to others.
While teachers’ metta is concerned with sincere wishes, their karuna (compassion) is concerned with the act of translating the wishes into practice: transforming students from unskilled beings into being skilled ones. According to Brahma-vihara, teachers with karuna attempt to help for the sake of helping, not expecting anything in return. Such a help is for promoting students’ success and easing their sufferings. Nevertheless, Yearly notes that “Western philosophical thought has discarded compassion as the basis for an ethical system along with the rejection of religion”. Although karuna appears to signify a feminine side, its condition has pragmatic virtues representing a universal ethic. As a consequence of this, teachers from other nations or religions may also find it useful.
When students attain success, teachers should have mudita (sympathetic joy) for them. Generally, people can find “appreciative gladness” when seeing others better, especially better than them hard to obtain as it tends to go against human nature. However, jealousy is a great defilement in Buddhism, as appeared in a Buddhist proverb “arati lokanasika” meaning that jealousy can destroy the world. Therefore, teachers should refrain from it. They should perceive students’ success as bringing satisfying pride to them, an immeasurable gift marking their success in their professional teaching career. The elimination of jealousy and hence the cultivation of mudita can gradually be practised by nurturing metta to prosper in mind.
Eventually, no matter the results of their metta, karuna, and mudita; teachers are to possess upekkha (equanimity) towards them. According to Payutto (2007), people with upekkha stay calm, steady, and detached. Teachers equipped with it do not shake easily even when unloved by students whom they help before. When their students, although well-taught, commit wrongdoings, teachers will not blame themselves or suffer from disappointment. As Goldstein and Kornfield (2001) point out, “True equanimity is not a withdrawal, it is a balanced opening to all aspects of life. It is an engagement in the whole of life with composure and with balance of mind…”. Teachers with upekkha thereby understand the world as it actually is, attempting to control their own mind, as opposed to the world. As can be seen, each component in Brahma-vihara works interdependently reflecting a holistic process of teachers’ spiritual development.
Like other students in elsewhere nowadays, Thai students are challenged with modern distractions resulting in their less motivation, less attempts, less concentration, and less reflection given to their study. Here, the Buddhist iddhipada may be one of the best medicines curing the educational symptoms. Kirtikara similarly advocates bringing iddhipada back to Thailand education. Iddhipada means a path to success, involving four supportive conditions needed to be practised along the path, namely they are chanda, viriya, citta, and vimamsa.
The first fundamental condition leading to success is chanda which is defined as zeal, passion, and aspiration in carrying out tasks. People holding it believe that “there is nothing within or without one’s personality that can obstruct the attainment of the goal”. Being relevant to willingness in committing to the tasks, there is a tendency for chanda to be closely connected with intrinsic motivation for learning. Such motivation makes the hard easy. Payutto (2007) claims that chanda will thrive when one recognises the merits of what one does or will do. Therefore, to grow students’ chanda, teachers need to make them aware of the virtues of learning as well as use real life activities to demonstrate the association between classroom learning and real life practicality.
Chanda automatically brings Viriya which is described by Brown (2004) as “the diligent energy, effort and exertion required”. Students these days are spoiled with technological comforts in almost all facets of life resulting in their preference of instant success but less viriya. Their lack of delayed gratification can influence their learning achievements and their mental sufferings when met with disappointment from things that go against their desires. Less viriya thus implies less psychological strength. Besides cultivating viriya by cultivating chanda, Thai teachers may also need to promote students’ awareness and suppression of sense desires accelerated by technological advancement and media.
The third condition is citta or “committing oneself to the task; to establish one’s attention on the task in hand and do it thoughtfully, not allowing the mind to wander; to apply one’s thought to the matter regularly and consistently and do the task or action devotedly”. In other words, citta is a state of being present with the present tasks. Students with citta can stay focused and engage in learning actively and thoughtfully. With such qualities, it can be said that citta also enhances students’ prudence and mindfulness.
Students’ chanda, viriya, and citta may become meaningless without vimamsa that is understood as reflecting and investigating what is learned. Students’ vimamsa can be connected with their transference of what they learned in class into new situations or new contexts outside the class. The transference should give them thoughts on how practical the learned knowledge is and how they should adapt it in their further transferences.
The mentioned Buddhist scriptures considered as promoting the development of Thai education appear overlapped with some western theories and ideologies. Then it may raise a question of “What makes it different when adding them to Thai education development where similar western notions have already situated there?”. Part of the justifications is that some Thais may deem western educational products as others’ assets, therefore being psychologically against it. It should be noted that although most Thais enjoy adopted western cultures and lifestyles, their sense of independence was so strong. Using the Buddhist doctrines alongside the promotion of western educational products may pave a better way for Thailand education development.

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